• Published 27th Feb 2015
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Dark Sun - ScreamingDoom



Twilight must delve into Celestia's past to save the future of Equestria.

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6 Between the Dark and the Light

Time ticked by, but how long Tia sat there staring at the empty sky she couldn't tell. All around her were ponies in various stages of shock and horror at their strange mutilations at the hoof of the spell.

Her spell.

Well, technically Stardancer's spell, but Tia was in charge. The final decision had been hers. The responsibility was hers. If she had just refused to go along with the spell...

It was the right decision.

Tia jumped slightly and looked around her in the growing, starless gloom as the fires in the nearby town had finally begun to die down. She looked over to her sister, but Luna seemed just as shocked as every other pony; the normally vivacious and confident filly was fixated with quiet horror, looking over Stardancer's lack of wings and horn. Stardancer herself was too busy crying over her loss to manage anything that might be construed as speech. Nopony else was close enough to say anything without raised voices, especially over the general din of laments and misery that floated through the area. Did Tia imagine the voice?

If you hadn't cast the spell, then at least half of your forces would have deserted and futilely thrown themselves at the enemy.

Again, Tia jumped and looked wildly around her, getting up to her hooves. And again, no source of the voice seemed present. Tia hesitated then let out a quiet, "H-hello?" into the air.

The Voice -- Tia couldn't tell if it was male or female, or even the direction; it seemed to come from everywhere at once -- spoke again, with calm, clinical authority. You must now reassert control. The longer your forces remain in their current state, the more likely they will rebel against your authority.

Tia blinked then cast her eyes over her 'forces'; just a couple dozen fillies and colts, most of whom were now crippled to various extents and traumatized as well.

Reassert control, The Voice insisted, Every moment you delay brings you closer to being deposed. When Tia didn't immediately move to follow the Voice's advice, it spoke again. You can save them, but your ability to do so is closing quickly. Reassert. Control.

Tia started moving. She trotted into a more central location for all the other ponies and cleared her throat. "O-okay, everypony..." she began, only to discover that nopony was listening to her. She squared her shoulders and put a more authoritative tone to her voice, steadying it with an effort and casting a simple spell to increase the volume so that it rang out across the dark plain, "Everypony! Listen!" The sobbing and panicked cries slowly began to stop as individuals began to turn towards Tia; eventually only the foals were still crying. She wasn't sure how, but she could tell that the Voice was pleased.

"We need to take stock of what's going on," Tia stated, "I know that this whole situation is... unusual, but we need to pull together and come up with a plan."

"Your 'plan' sure worked well last time, Tia," Silverhoof snapped out -- Tia winced slightly when she noticed the colt had lost his wings, but at least retained his horn, "I, for one, don't really have much confidence in your 'leadership'." Several other ponies nodded in agreement and murmuring debate began to break out amongst the crowd.

This one is a threat to your authority, the Voice said dispassionately, You must break him or he will be a constant thorn in your side.

Tia wasn't sure exactly what the Voice meant, but she stiffened her pose and stared imperiously at the colt, "I think you'll remember, Silverhoof, that the only reason I agreed to the spell idea in the first place was because you were hoof-bent on doing something."

Silverhoof's ears flattened against his skull, but he retorted, "Yeah, and my idea would've been better!"

"Oh?" Tia asked, a thin smile spreading on her features as she walked up to the colt and began circling him like a predator, "As I recall, your idea was to just run up to the cloud-thing and hope you could do something. Tell me, Silverhoof, do you honestly think that would've accomplished anything? You saw the cloud." She looked over at the crowd, "All of you saw it. Does anypony here seriously think we could've done anything against that thing other than what we did?" Tia saw that several of the ponies who had nodded along with Silverhoof's statement before had lowered their heads.

"Y-yeah, well," Silverhoof stumbled to regain his momentum, "At least my plan wouldn't have crippled us all! Or erased the sky!" Tia winced again and once more saw the crowd shifting perspectives towards the colt.

"We don't know what happened," Tia stated flatly, "We don't know if the spell is the cause of all this or not. It's likely, but not certain. But if it did cause all this, then it's probably reversible, right? Every spell has a counter. I doubt we'd get over whatever that cloud had in store for us any time soon. Especially if we just ran right at it without any further thought!" Tia again turned to the crowd, "Look, until we have more information we need to stick together. Once we get a handle on things, then we can discuss things further. Trying to lay blame on anypony isn't going to help us!" Tia breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the crowd bow their heads in supplication -- some more reluctantly than others, but the wisdom of her words seemed hard to ignore.

Silverhoof, seeing the same thing, glared at Tia then bowed his head as well. "Fine. We'll do things your way. For now."

Tia could sense that the Voice was satisfied; not pleased, but content with the outcome. She straightened up as she addressed the other ponies, "Okay, so. First things first... is any pony hurt? I mean, besides having lost wings or horns?" None of the assembled spoke up and Tia let out a sigh of relief, "Good. Mmn..." Tia looked over towards the dying embers of the burning town and frowned faintly, "Okay, everypony who has a horn, we're going to need to you to cast some light spells. It's going to get really, really dark soon and everypony will need to see." The crowd shuffled and eventually lights of varying colors began to glow in the darkness, casting a kaleidoscope of illumination over the area. Tia nodded, "Right. Now, none of our folks have come to get us, so either they think we're still at the edge of the woods, have gone there and are now searching for us, or they just haven't had time. In this dark, it's going to be difficult for them to find us, so everypony is going to be broken up into groups with at least one unicorn. The light spells will serve as beacons as well as providing light."

The crowd of young ponies murmured amongst themselves at the new word 'unicorn' and began to shuffle into loose, self-organized groups on Tia's orders.

"Heh. 'One horn'," Stardancer remarked, moving up to Tia's side. Worry was still etched on her features and unshorn tears still caused her eyes to water, but the young magically-inclined filly was better than the sobbing mess Tia had seen just a few minutes ago. "Nice name. I'd suggest 'pegasus' for the winged ones. And--" Stardancer's voice faded off with a strangulated croak, a few more tears falling before she managed to get control of herself again, "And 'geo-equine' for... for the ones like me. We're stuck to the earth, after all. Theoretically, a unicorn could fly with a spell."

Tia placed a forehoof on the shoulder of her friend, "We'll find a way to fix this, Stardancer. I'm sure the adults will know how, if nothing else. Like I said: magic is reversible."

"Y-yeah," Stardancer agreed, though her voice sounded hollow and hopeless. Guilt surged up into Tia's heart, but she fought it down with an effort, again turning to the collection of ponies.

"All right, everypony," she said, voice full of authority she didn't feel, "I'm going to need one group to head back to the edge of the forest. If our parents haven't had the chance to look for us yet, they'll probably go there first. I'll also need a group to tend to the foals. The rest of you will follow Luna and I and we'll head into town and try to find out more about what happened."

"I'll take my group to the forest," Silverhoof spoke up, still glaring a bit at Tia. She noticed that many in his group were those who supported him previously; hardly surprising. Tia nodded, "Sounds good." Throwing him a little authority might help smooth over bruised egos. She watched as he and his group turned and began to walk away.

"Uhm, I guess my group will help with the foals," a light yellow unicorn stated, shuffling a bit on her hooves; Tia noted that most of her group seemed to be geo-equines. Tia smiled and nodded, "Right, Dust Mote." She turned to the rest of the ponies and motioned her head towards the dying embers of the town, "The rest of you, come with me." With that, she began to lead the way back to the ruined collection of buildings.

As they walked, Tia noted that Luna and Stardancer were on either side of her, while all the other ponies kept a trepidatious distance behind. Tia was thankful for the company, even if her sister and friend were unusually quiet. "Ducat for your thoughts?" Tia asked Luna with a ghost of smile on her face.

Luna turned her attention to Tia briefly before returning her eyes to the smoldering ruin that was their home just a few brief hours ago. "I'm scared, Tia," Luna finally said in a low voice so no one but their little threesome would hear, "Everything is happening so fast. I... I know I should be brave, but..."

Tia wrapped a wing comfortingly around her sister, "I know, I'm scared too. But the others are relying on us. We can't... we can't just fall apart, y'know?" Luna nodded solemnly. For the normally brazen and aggressively cheerful alicorn to act like... like... well, her, was very off-putting to Tia. Tia hid her worry well, however, and carefully schooled her features before looking over at Stardancer, "How, um... how are you holding up?"

"How do you think?" Stardancer groused, her ears going flat against her skull and a flash of anger drifting across her features, "I've only lost everything that made me who I am. I'm just peachy, Tia." A beat passed before Stardancer spoke again, sighing, "Sorry, sorry. I... it's just a lot to take in, okay?"

Tia nodded, hesitated, then set a wing comfortingly over her friend. To her surprise, Stardancer flinched and stiffened at the touch. Maybe providing a tactile reminder that Stardancer had lost her wings wasn't such a good idea. Quickly, Tia retracted the gesture.

The whole group walked in eerie quiet. Even the night-time sounds of insects seemed to be silenced. The only sounds came from the soft crunch of their hooves on the ground and the occasional whisper of voices as other ponies spoke to one another. The devastation of the town became more visible and disheartening the closer they got; it seemed like none of the buildings were untouched by the disaster and all but a few were nothing more than burnt cinders.

As the group walked through the silent, rubble-strewn, darkened streets with the ruins of their old lives looming over them, one of the ponies broke. A loud wail of despair drifted through the area and all the others stopped to turn and look at the distressed pony. Another geo-equine by the look of it and Tia felt a tinge of unease as she couldn't remember that particular lavender coated pony's name. "Where is everypony?!" she cried out into the empty sky, "Where are our parents?!" The crowd shuffled uneasily as the worrisome words that every one of them had thought were suddenly given form.

"They... they're p-probably out looking for us," Stardancer spoke up, though her voice trembled and lacked any assertiveness.

"The Town Hall," Luna suddenly spoke up, "Let's... let's go there. It's made almost completely of stone, so it should've handled the fires well. It has that tall tower so we can get a better look around the town. And it seems like the best place for our parents to set up a headquarters for the same reasons."

The lavender geo-equine sniffled and nodded, gathering herself up from her broken mental state. The crowd of ponies looked askance at each other, but eventually nodded along with the idea. Without further word, the group headed towards Town Hall.

***

Despite the debris littering the streets and the sizable grouping of ponies, they had managed to reach the Town Hall in the center of the ruins fairly quickly. As Luna had reasoned, the Hall had escaped a lot of the fire damage, though one of the wings of the large buildings had collapsed, apparently from an impact. Of what, there was no sign. The magical torches which should've illuminated the interior were all snuffed out, making the looming, functional edifice even more intimidating. Thankfully, the collapse of one of the wings hadn't compromised the tall alabaster marble spire jutting out from the center of building into the sky.

There weren't any stairs going up to the tower; why would there be? Everyone had wings and those who couldn't fly due to youth or sickness either could be carried or didn't need to go up there anyway. Tia looked towards her sister then to the crowd. "Okay. Only the pegasi can get up there. You'll still need light to see, so Luna will go with you. It's the best vantage point we'll get around here, so even in the dark it's likely our best bet for seeing where our parents went."

"Wait!" Stardancer spoke up, "I know a spell which might make the searching easier. Luna, if you have a moment..." Luna nodded and the two conferred quietly. While that was happening, Tia turned her attention back to the other ponies, "Okay, any pegasus willing to go up with my sister?" A general uneasy shuffling occurred in the group before the crowd parted to let one of the winged ponies through. A dark blue coat and blonde mane greeted Tia and she recognized the colt as Sky Kicker; it was appropriate for him to retain his wings. He had always been showing off his aerial acrobatics prowess. A twinge of guilt stabbed at Tia as she remembered that Stardancer wasn't as lucky. "Anyone else?" A few more moments passed before a couple more pegasi stepped forward. It was understandable that there was some trepidation for this mission; after all, who knows what they'd find up in the tower and without any magic, they'd be lost in the dark if something happened to Luna. Still, perhaps it was for the best; the observation platform in the Town Hall wasn't all that large so a smaller group would be best.

Stardancer and Luna finished their conversation and walked over to the volunteers. Without preamble, Luna spread her wings and leaped for the sky, the four pegasi following closely after the glow from her horn.

"What spell did you teach her?" Tia asked Stardancer as her eyes followed the light of the horn as it spiraled up the spire and eventually disappeared inside the tower.

"Nothing really complicated," Stardancer replied, "Just a directional light spell, really. A really simple spell matrix combining a standard light spell with a bit of the standard telekinesis all pony--" she caught herself, "--well, all horned ponies use. You can use the telekinesis to shape the light."

Tia blinked. "Wow. I didn't know that."

Stardancer smirked -- it was the first ghost of a smile Tia could remember on her friend since this whole disaster began -- "Few ponies do, actually. Most when trying to come up with something like that just build the whole spell from scratch. It's amazing how more elegant just finding ways to combine simpler components into more complex effects can be. The hardest thing about it is keeping all the spells in mind and the connections to them in a matrix at the same time. It takes a bit more mental discipline than just reflexively casting a single spell."

"I should definitely learn that," Tia remarked before the sky was pierced with a dark energy beaming out from the tower in a cone. Despite it being almost as dark as the night itself, it still seemed to illuminate anywhere it touched, brightening pieces of the town as it weaved through the streets. It didn't take long for the beam to sweep over much of the town. It extended further and widened, spreading out into the area beyond the buildings proper.

"Think she's found anypony?" Stardancer asked uneasily.

"I don't know," Tia responded, "It's hard to tell from this angle. That's why there's four other pairs of eyes up in that tower. Hopefully one of them will see something even if the others miss it."

The beam continued it's slightly drunken but methodical sweeping of the area outside town for several more minutes, the ponies below watching with baited breath. Slowly, however, ponies began turning away -- as the beam got further from the town, the less likely they were to be able to see anything at all.

That all changed in an instant.

With a sudden explosion of light, the sky above was awash in color. Streams of stars glided across the black canvas, in a myriad of colors, illuminating gaseous clouds of nebulae in a gentle but no less spectacular light show. The sky brimmed with light and everypony on the ground stood in awe as it was filled in like the brush strokes of a celestial painter -- no night previously had ever looked so beautiful or crisp and clear. It was pure artistry in motion. Over the horizon a large sphere began to rise -- the semi-smooth surface illuminating a pale white-yellow light that muted and dominated the other cosmic pinpricks and strokes of light. It was the moon, of that there was no doubt, but so large and clear that it looked like a storybook. Its pale light flooded over the area, casting soft shadows from the ruins and the darkened edifice of the Town Hall, chasing away its imposing nature.

The group of ponies on the ground remained spellbound until five figures could be seen approaching -- now easily detectable silhouetted against the pale moonlight. Luna and her coterie landed nearby and trotted up the group -- the four pegasi looked no less awed than any other pony. Even Luna herself looked amazed as she turned to stare up at the sky. Her sky.

"Luna... what happened?" Tia asked her sister, managing to tear her gaze away from the now fully rendered night's sky.

"I... I don't know," Luna said after a moment, still staring up at the sky, "I was adjusting the spell that Stardancer explained to me -- making the beam wider and longer -- when I directed it up to the sky. I... felt something that I never felt before, Tia. I can't describe it. It was like I knew exactly what I had to do and how to do it. I made the adjustments to the spell and did... that." Luna raised a hoof towards the sky again. "It was like the very elements of creation itself were clay I could shape at will."

Tia blinked again, looking from her sister to the sky and back. "Well, you did a great job," she finally said somewhat awkwardly, "I don't think I ever saw a night's sky as wonderful as this."

"That's not all!" Sky Kicker said excitedly, trotting up to the sisters and pointing at Luna's flank, "When she did that there was... I don't know how to describe it... she sort of floated up and these lines of magic came around her and she had this!"

Tia turned her eyes to the place where Sky Kicker was pointing and canted her head. There on her sister's flank was an image like a crescent moon. "Stardancer? What do you make of this?"

Stardancer tore her eyes away from the sky and examined Luna's flank. She hesitated then shrugged helplessly, "It's a cute mark?"

"Did you see anypony?" a member of the crowd suddenly asked. That got the rest to tear their eyes away from the sky and turn towards Luna in hopeful askance.

Luna hesitated then lowered her head. The other pegasi did the same. A choked sob rang out into the night.

"Just because they didn't see anypony doesn't mean they're not out there," Tia said quickly, though she could tell that hope of finding their parents was quickly fading amongst the group. Truth be told, she was of the opinion that they were gone as well, but she didn't want to bring that up as long as the possibility that the adults could still be somewhere was there. "The whole spell thing threw us all around, remember? Maybe the same thing happened to our folks, only since they were closer to the cloud thing, they were pushed farther away." Tia looked desperately to Stardancer for confirmation.

"It's... possible, I guess," she replied without much conviction, "We... w-we should, uhm, we should probably prepare for a few days at least before they find us. Maybe even a couple of weeks."

Tia nodded and turned on her authoritative voice again. "Right. Okay, then. Now that we have light to see, we can send a couple of pegasi off to get the others and lead them back here. The rest of us will start setting up sleeping areas inside the Hall and search around for some food and blankets. There's probably something salvageable around, so a few groups of five as scrounging parties might be good." She paused then turned towards Luna and the four other pegasi, "Let's have each one of you lead the search groups. You've already seen some of the town from above and can scout easily enough to find what places have the greatest likelihood of having something salvageable."

"Books!" Stardancer suddenly interjected as everypony looked towards her. She cleared her throat then spoke again, a faint blush on her features, "Food and blankets are most important of course, but keep an eye out for any books in good enough condition as well. Spellbooks in particular since those may help us find a way to reverse... what happened." Her voice faded for a moment before she continued, "But any books at all would be good. Even children's books could help with keeping the foals entertained and calmer."

Tia nodded to her friend and looked towards the group, "All right, we have a plan. Let's get to it."

***

Hours passed as Tia organized the makeshift sleeping area inside the Town Hall and took stock of supplied they had on hand. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't much in the way of useful things in the Hall itself, but someone had found a meeting room with chairs and a large table that served well as a central place to give and receive reports. Slowly, the search teams began a steady trickle of resources that Tia meticulously recorded before having them sent out to fulfill various needs or to one of the rooms earmarked for storage. They had even found a surprisingly large amount of books; Tia assigned Stardancer to organizing a library and trying to repair some of the more damaged ones by getting a unicorn to cast cleaning and repair spells or cannibalizing multiple copies. Surprisingly, it was Silverhoof who had volunteered for that duty... though Tia guessed it may have been to get as far away from her as possible.

Tia didn't even look up from her ledger as the door opened. She waved a hoof towards one end of the room where a pile of various odds and ends had ended up as the quill held in her telekinesis scratched continuously on the large scroll in front of her (one of the advantages of the Town Hall was plenty of parchment and stationary), "Just put it over with the others. I'll get to it soon."

"You've been at this for hours," a voice Tia recognized as Luna said, causing the rainbow-maned alicorn to look up, "Have you had anything to eat? Or taken a rest?"

Tia sighed and rubbed her hooves over her eyes, "I can't, Luna. Not yet. I have to make sure everypony else is taken care of first. It's my responsibility."

Luna frowned as she trotted closer, "You won't be helping anypony else if you're fighting your own hunger and fatigue, dear sister. Let me take over for a while."

Tia hesitated, shifting in the chair, "You've... already done so much. I mean, we have a sky again thanks to you. I... I feel like I have to do something. It's... my fault. This whole thing is my fault." Tia's ears flattened against her skull in misery as she looked down at the ledger in front of her.

"I went along with it, too, Tia," Luna stated patiently, "Everypony did. Wanting to do something -- anything -- to help is why we're in this mess in the first place."

Tia sighed and let her quill drop, leaning back in the chair, "I guess you're right. I just... I wish mom and dad were here."

Luna said nothing for a moment then her magic opened up her saddlebag and pulled out a tome slightly blackened by carbon and set it down in front of Tia. Tia's eyes widened in surprised delight, "My diary!"

"I found it in our old house," Luna said with a faint smile, "It's... not looking like it used to, but it seemed to have weathered a lot better than other houses. I'm sure a cleaning or repair spell or two will have it looking just as new."

Tia frowned faintly, looking up at her sister, "What about your telescope?"

Luna hesitated then shook her head, "It, I'm afraid, did not fair so well. I doubt it could be repaired even with magic."

Tia looked down and sighed, clasping her forehooves over her eyes, "Everything just goes wrong with everypony around me, yet I am always mysteriously unhurt."

"It's just a telescope, Tia. It's not important."

"It is!" Tia insisted forcefully, clapping her hooves down on the desk in front of her, "It is important! It's the last present you got from mom and dad! Some ponies lost their horns. Others lost their wings. Stardancer lost both. Yet here I am, without a scratch. I didn't even lose my diary!" Her magic surrounded the tome in question and threw it forcefully across the room -- though Luna caught it with her own telekinesis before it hit anything.

"We've all lost something, Tia," Luna murmured quietly as she floated the diary back to her sister, "We lost our parents, at the very least. Others lost more, yes, but... that doesn't diminish what we lost."

Tia sighed again and slumped in the chair, "Maybe. But it seems so... unfair. Why did someone like Stardancer lose so much, yet you and I lost so little?"

"I don't know," Luna said, "Maybe it was just random chance or maybe there was some purpose to it all. I can't say. But I do know that dwelling on it won't help anypony. You say you want to be there for the others? That you have a responsibility to them? Then the first thing you have to do is stop feeling sorry for yourself."

Tia flinched, her ears flattening against her head as she went silent for several moments. Eventually, the white alicorn sighed and nodded. "You're right, Luna. I... I'm just tired and hungry, I think. I'll go get something to eat and then find a bed in the sleeping area."

Luna nodded with a faint smile, "Good. I'll take over for you with this. Sleep well, Tia."

Tia slipped off the chair and smiled to her sister before throwing her two front hooves around her in a hug, "Thanks."

With that, Tia grabbed the diary with her magic and then walked out. After the meal, she was going to write all of this down so she would never forget.

***

After waking from her sleep period (nopony was quite sure how long sleeping lasted any more; the sun still hadn't risen so had become 'sleep until you are no longer tired'), Tia did feel a bit better. After securing her diary, the young alicorn decided to check up on Stardancer and Silverhoof in the makeshift library.

Formerly the records room, the books and filing cabinets containing various administrative information that no longer had relevance had been moved off to one of the unused rooms in the Town Hall. This left the towering shelves inside empty to be filled with the more relevant salvaged tomes. Tia was impressed by how well things were going; there were several shelves already filled with books, plus a work area where unicorns magically cleaned and repaired what works they could, then another area where geo-equines labored to repair the more damaged tomes by sacrificing multiple copies to rebind into complete works. Tia noticed that several of the tomes had been set aside; presumably, not all the information therein was complete yet and as more books were found by the search teams, they'd be added to.

Stardancer sat at a reading table, a long scroll in front of her and Silverhoof nearby with a stack of books. The two would talk quietly and then Stardancer would make some notation on the scroll, occasionally shuffling one of the books from the pile over and flipping through it. Tia hesitated, unsure if she should be disturbing the pair, but eventually trotted up to the desk. "How are things coming, Stardancer?"

Both Stardancer and Silverhoof looked up, the latter narrowing his eyes and frowning. Apparently, he was still sore over the small power struggle a few sleep periods prior.

"We are making progress," Stardancer said with a nod, "I think I know what happened, at least in very broad strokes. That cloud thing was some kind of chaos energy. When the spell interacted with it, it caused some kind of feedback which scrambled all the magic being pumped into it. Since the spell we used was connected to everypony at once, that meant all our magic was mixed up as well. Still, there was enough order to the spell that when the whole thing collapsed, it collapsed in specific patterns. That's why we have pegasi, unicorns, and geo-equines rather than things like chimera or ponies with one wing or half a horn or something."

"So what about Luna and I?" Tia asked, tilting her head, "We didn't change."

"Actually, you did," Stardancer stated, motioning with a hoof towards Tia's flowing, rainbow mane, "Since you, Luna, and I were at the focused loci of the spell, all the excess magic that didn't flow into the other ponies flowed into you two. I haven't done a census, but that may be why there's more geo-equines than the other types. The spell didn't just reorder everything, some of the magic was directed into you."

Tia winced. That was just great. Not only did she cripple most of the other fillies and foals in town, she was also some kind of magic vampire. "Why didn't you, um..."

"Why didn't I keep my wings and horn?" Stardancer completed flatly before frowning, "Honestly... I don't know. The only thing I can think of -- and this is pure conjecture on my part, Tia -- is that since you and Luna are twins, you shared the power. Since I was the odd one out on that point, I got the short end of the tail."

"Oh great," Tia groaned, placing a hoof over her face, "How do we fix this?"

Stardancer hesitated, shifting uneasily in her seat. Silverhoof's glare intensified. "I don't know," Stardancer said, a note of contrite desperation in her voice, "All of this is really, really out of my league, Tia. I was good at magic, sure, but I am just a filly. If any of the adults were here, maybe they would know or at least be able to find a starting point, but me?" She shook her head and frowned, peering down at the scroll in front of her, "It'll take years of study, at best."

Tia gasped and took a step back, looking aghast at her friend, "Years?! Everypony will be stuck like this for years?!"

"At least," Stardancer replied miserably, sinking down in her seat, "Tia.... it... it may not even be possible to fix. These chaos energies are notoriously rare and difficult to study. The only things I've been able to find about it never mentioned anything as big as the cloud we saw. And that's with just the books we've salvaged. We lost a lot of knowledge, Tia. The dynamics of the spell alone might take a lifetime to figure out."

Tia's previous better feeling was now just a memory. "W-well, maybe once we find the adults--"

"They're dead," Silverhoof spoke up suddenly, flatly. The ponies working at the tables to repair books all stopped and looked to him.

"They're... lost, not dead, exactly," Stardancer said, her voice low and sotto as the ponies at the tables began to slowly return to their work.

Passing a confused look between the geo-equine and the unicorn, Tia frowned, "What do you mean?"

"Our parents weren't part of the gestalt spell," Stardancer replied quietly, looking at once horrified, miserable, and embarrassed, "So when the spell collapsed, it took everything in the target area with it... the chaos magic and any local sources of pattern magic. Which were our parents. That's also why the magic torches in the Hall weren't lit when we arrived; they were absorbed too."

Tia's hooves gave out from under her and she fell to the floor, staring with quiet horror at her friend, "We... we blew them up?"

"Absorbed them, most likely. They, um... they're literally part of us now."

Tia's eyes brimmed with tears and she found herself hyperventilating.

"Told you we should've just charged the thing," Silverhoof grumbled, still glaring at the heavily breathing alicorn. Stardancer fixed him with a frown and lightly bapped him on the head with a foreleg.

It took several minutes for Tia to recover herself. She had managed to steady her breathing and keep from bawling right in the middle of the makeshift library -- it wouldn't do to have so many ponies see her like that, especially as this crisis was getting worse by the moment. Tia fought back the tears and stood unsteadily on her hooves, taking a deep breath. "Okay. We won't be able to fix this any time soon. What about that... that mark that appeared on Luna? Any idea about that?"

"The cutie mark?" Stardancer asked, "Mm. Again, I'm kinda at a loss here. I suspect it has something to do with the new order imposed by the spell, but what specifically it means or affects, I haven't a clue. From what Luna said, it might have something to do performing acts of spectacular magic, but that's a best guess based on really thin evidence."

Tia frowned at the new information, canting her head to one side. One question bubbled out of her, "'Cutie mark'?"

Stardancer grinned sheepishly and shrugged, "Hay, it was cute and a mark. Seemed an appropriate enough name. I mean, it doesn't have the auspiciousness of 'pegasus', 'unicorn', or 'geo-equine', but having a more down-to-earth name makes the phenomenon more... approachable. Especially since others have started getting them."

Tia blinked at that. "Wait, others have started getting them?"

Stardancer nodded, "Yeah. Seven, that I know of. There might be more. One was the pegasus leader of one of the search parties. A few more on my staff," she motioned to the tables where unicorns and geo-equines still worked, "I saw several from the ponies who were tending to the foals when they came in looking for books to read to their charges."

Tia frowned faintly in thought, "You said they were from acts of spectacular magic, right? Aren't geo-equines without magic entirely? I don't think many non-geo-equines are part of the foal tending group."

"I said that was a best guess," Stardancer replied, "None of this is really well understood." She suddenly brightened, seeming much more happy than Tia had seen her at any time during the crisis, "But! It turns out that geo-equines are not without magic entirely. It just takes a different form. It's not as flexible as unicorn magic, nor as obvious as pegasus, but it is definitely there."

"Oh," Tia replied, arching her eyebrows, "Well, that is good news at least. What can geo-equines do?"

"Well, it varies," Stardancer replied, pursing her lips, "Actually, from my admittedly small sampling, their cutie marks seem much more eclectic than the other two types of ponies. Typically, it has something to do with the physical world. Machinery, growing plants..." She faded off then craned her neck to peer at her own flank, "...rocks."

It took a moment for Tia to register what Stardancer was saying, but when it did the alicorn gasped and ran around to look at Stardancer's flank. Sure enough, there was a pictograph of a gem, some sort of stone, and an ingot of a silvery metal surrounding a six-pointed star burst. "Wow!" Tia said as she stared at it, then suddenly found herself at a loss for words. "Congratulations?" she offered hesitantly.

A beatific smile spread over Stardancer's features. "Thanks!" she replied happily, "It's strange, but... I kinda feel... whole. I know that's a weird thing to say considering I lost my horn and wings, but it's true nonetheless. I know it doesn't look like much, either, but... um..." Stardancer shrugged.

"How did you get it?" Tia asked curiously, trotting around to the front of the table again.

"I was... reading a book on magical gems," Stardancer said, her voice going somewhat dreamy as she recalled, "I thought that maybe magic could be replicated in gemstones for those of us lacking horns. It would never be like having a real horn, but it might be useful for some basic things like telekinesis and the like. Anyway, as I was reading it, I felt like my whole life just clicked into place. Suddenly, I could tell anything at all about any ore, stone, gem, or refined metal just by touching it." Her expression sharpened somewhat, ears pricking up, "For instance... did you know there are exactly two-hundred eighty-six stone tiles making up the floor in this library? I didn't count them; I just sensed it."

Tia arched her brows again. "Impressive."

"There's also a substantial deposit of iron ore right outside the Hall about three fathoms deep."

"Most impressive."

Stardancer smiled wryly, "As I said, it's a bit too early to be seeing patterns in things, but so far geo-equines seem to have more physical, earthy magic, pegasi seem more to do with meteorological and flight characteristics, and unicorns deal with the more... uhm... ethereal. Abstract concepts, symbolic logic, that sort of thing."

Tia smiled at her friend, happy to see the other filly so animated after the shock of losing her wings and horn. "Well, this is all good to know. It will... it will soften the blow when I explain to everypony that we're unlikely to see our parents again." Her head drooped, ears flattening, "Or be able to fix this whole thing any time soon."

Stardancer's happy smile began to fade, "There's another piece of bad news, though."

Tia winced and sighed, rubbing her forehooves to the sides of her head, "Figures. Okay, what else is wrong?"

"Well, Luna was kind enough to give us a sky again," Stardancer began, shifting her weight on her chair, "But, um... well, as beautiful as it is, it doesn't provide much light. If we're going to be in this for the long haul, we're going to need to start growing food. That's going to be very difficult without the sun. Now, as I said, a few ponies have plant and growth-based cutie mark magics, but its not enough to feed us all. And even with those few ponies, lack of sun makes things much harder. It's possible that some of the unicorns could learn a spell to give off light enough to grow things on a wider scale, but even then... well, you might've noticed that things are getting kinda colder around here. Without the sun, we're facing the very real possibility of both starving and freezing to death. We might've been able to handle one of those, but both at the same time..."

Tia's own good cheer on seeing her friend happy was completely obliterated by this new information. "Of course," she muttered to herself, "Of course it would." She sighed heavily, "Thanks for bringing all of this to my attention, Stardancer. I'll set up a full meeting soon to tell everypony the good and bad news."

"Mostly bad," Silverhoof interjected.

"Yes, thank you," Tia muttered, casting an annoyed look over to the colt before turning her attention back to Stardancer, "In the meantime, keep working at what you're doing. Maybe we'll get lucky and you'll stumble on something that will speed up the process." Stardancer nodded and Tia turned to walk out, frowning faintly.

***

Tia shivered slightly as she stepped out of the Town Hall; it was getting colder. Tia sighed and looked up at the sky and the wonderful work of celestial art her sister had produced several sleep periods ago. It was still as beautiful now as it was when it first came into being, but it needed to end. Soon.

Sighing again, Tia unfurled her wings and took to the air, spiraling up the central spire. The landing platform was wide and led into a domed interior made of glass. Tia noted with some dismay that a number of the panes were missing or broken. She idly wondered if that happened during the fighting or when the spell had malfunctioned.

Landing on the platform and tucking her wings against her body, Tia strode into the viewing dome. She vaguely remembered when she was much younger and couldn't fly at all that her parents had taken her and her sister on their backs here.

Her parents.

They were gone, now. Forever. Dissolved into that accursed spell. Tia glared angrily down at her own hooves and at the cracked tiles that made up the floor of the viewing dome. "It's not fair!" she cried out in frustration, stamping a hoof on a tile, causing the already fractured stone to shatter even more. Anger soon turned to despair and she just let the tears come. There was no one relying on her now, no one that needed to see the strong, confident filly. Here she could let it all out.

She wasn't sure how long she cried; without any way to keep track of time, it was amazing how one second flowed into the next. All she knew was that eventually the tears stopped; not because she felt any better, but only because she had no more tears left to give. Sniffling, Tia ran a foreleg against her snout, wiping away some of mucus that had leaked out during her blubbering. "Ugh," she said with mild disgust, "I'll have to get a bath soon."

Tia moved over closer to a section of the dome that had miraculously kept its glass and sat down in front of it, staring out of the panes into the night sky. She let her mind wander and found it going over what Stardancer had said about spell matrices. She had known of the technique, but that it could be used in such a way had surprised her. Tia pursed her lips and concentrated -- just a combination of telekinesis and a light spell, right?

To her delight, a beam of bright, yellow light flowed from her horn, cascading down into the town. Tia experimented with moving it back and forth, sweeping the searchlight across the collection of ruined buildings. Undoubtedly, some of the scouting parties would see it. Tia concentrated again, adjusting the spell to increase the size and range of the light beam, then hesitated. It was foalish to think this had any hope of working, really. Not to mention that Tia was uneasy about messing up the beautiful sky that Luna had created. Curiosity and faint hope won out in the end, and Tia directed the energy beam up to into sky.

Tia could feel it. The full glory of the the world -- no, the universe -- around her. It was an amazing, powerful sensation; with a mere thought she could bring into being anything she wanted.

No. Not anything. She would never get her parents back.

But it was as Luna had described it; as if she were holding the very stuff of creation in her hooves. And there was something else... a cloying, tugging sensation. It felt... right. Like being tucked into bed with clean sheets after a long day. Tia concentrated more and then felt it: the sun. It was there! All she had to do was give the lightest tug...

The sky began to lighten, the stars chased away by the brightening blue and golden rays. A large, half-crescent of yellow glowing fire peeked over the horizon, growing larger and brighter with every moment, chasing away the last lingering shadows.

Tia stopped once the sun was fully up; funny, it looked smaller when beside the moon, but it shown so much more brightly.

Tia found herself smiling then curiously turned her head to cast a look at her flank. Sure enough, a bright stylized orange sun was visible there. Tia marvelled for a moment at her cutie mark, then saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked over and saw Luna there, staring back with amazement. Tia glanced over the edge of the dome and could see the tiny shapes of ponies slowly walking out of the Hall to look towards the horizon at the sunrise. Tia held out a hoof to her sister, to walked over and sat beside her.

The two of them just stared out at the world, bathed in the warm yellow glow of the sun.

Celestia's Sun.